The Islamic State didn’t have a great 2017. But even as their physical caliphate shriveled, ISIS was looking past their territorial loss. “While ISIS has been defeated as a conventional fighting force, we cannot forget their terrorist roots,” Operation Inherent Resolve spokesman Col. Ryan Dillon warned in December. “We know this enemy is as adaptive and savvy as it is cruel and evil.”
Propaganda Goes Grassroots
Online publications in the early days of the caliphate detailed how the terror group was operating under a diffuse media strategy — “by not having a website, no one can hack it and claim an online victory,” stated the e-book “The Islamic State,” which was released three years ago.
“Each province has its own responsibility in creating its own videos and social media accounts to share its successes,” said the book. “By decentralising everything from the core leadership, even if a province fails online or offline, the leadership and overall Khilafah (Caliphate) leadership project is still safe and can grow elsewhere.”
Several official and affiliated media groups sprang up during the Islamic State’s heyday to disseminate propaganda, and those continuing to this day include al-Hayat, which releases many of ISIS’ slickly produced videos, and Amaq, a news agency that releases short articles on ISIS activities as well as claims. There’s also ISIS’ official Nashir channel on Telegram. But some of ISIS’ media operations have slacked: the group hasn’t released a new issue of Rumiyah magazine since September, and their weekly al-Naba newsletter has dropped from 16 pages to 12.
There to pick up the slack has been the online army of ISIS loyalists who have bought leadership’s excuses for losing Mosul and Raqqa and are willing to not only carry on but carry more of the propaganda burden. This was particularly evident over the holiday season, when lone supporters and ISIS-supporting media groups issued a variety of visual threats against the National Cathedral, the Vatican, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Temple in San Diego, Times Square and more, and also published attack tips and encouragement. (Everitt Jameson, accused of plotting to attack Pier 39 in San Francisco over Christmas, loved on Facebook one of these posters from ISIS supporters showing Santa overlooking Times Square with a box of dynamite at his side.)
So while it may look like fanboys creating and disseminating propaganda shows weakness in the PR effort at ISIS HQ, this trend falls in line with their early mantra that propaganda is best when it’s grassroots — created at the local level in a way that speaks to local would-be jihadists — and is difficult to stop.
The Threat of ISIS Women
Women had a few roles under the caliphate: as brides of jihadis, with no purpose other than to give birth to “cubs” who would be raised as terrorists; as morality police tasked with torturing other women deemed to be un-Islamic in ISIS-occupied areas; or as slaves kidnapped by the terror group. The collapse of the caliphate has been pushing women toward a greater role in jihad.
It’s not as if women have been wholly steered away committing acts of jihad. PJM reported in 2016 how ISIS recruiters on social media were preying on young teen American, non-Muslim girls to convince them to be ISIS sex slaves or to conduct attacks at home. One girl told an anti-ISIS hacker that the terror group asked her to blow up a specific place in her hometown and forwarded her bomb instructions.
Yet ISIS ultimately circled back to a core message for women: that they should come to the caliphate to best fulfill their duties as supporters (childbearers) of jihad. But the fall of the physical caliphate in Iraq and Syria shifts that game plan: first, women and children who lived in the Islamic State are returning to their home countries; second, women who want to serve the cause of ISIS will now not travel to a caliphate and increasingly pick home-based options, whether online propagandists and recruiters or lone jihadists.
A report last month from the Dutch General Intelligence and Security Service (AIVD) warned that ISIS has opened up to “more active and violent” roles for women as “a pragmatic and opportunistic organisation that is searching for new possibilities, especially in view of its dwindling numbers of male fighters.”
“Now that ISIS is encouraging women to participate in the fight, women in the Netherlands could be inspired to turn to violence,” a threat “subject to rapid change,” the report added.
Syria Safe Haven?
Despite the victories of the Iraqi Security Forces and the Kurdish-Arab-Assyrian Syrian Democratic Forces who have dramatically shrunk caliphate territory, ISIS has not been routed from Syria — they’ve just been flushed into a part of the country that’s proven safer for their fighters. A deputy commander for Operation Inherent Resolve said last week that ISIS fighters are moving “with impunity through regime-held territory,” showing that Bashar al-Assad’s regime “is clearly either unwilling or unable to defeat Daesh within their borders,” but the coalition does not intend to strike at ISIS as they take haven in these regions.
At the beginning of the year, oil deals between Assad and ISIS constituted one of the largest revenue sources for the terror group, according to U.S. and European officials, even as Assad claimed his regime fought ISIS. The “millions and millions of dollars of trade,” as noted by a Treasury official in 2015, between Assad and ISIS was detected from the early days of the caliphate. A few months ago, Assad gave tour bus rides to a few hundred ISIS fighters from the Lebanon border deep into regime territory; the U.S. did not strike any of the buses.
British Army Major General Felix Gedney, deputy commander for strategy and support with Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve, said the coalition is “seeing the movement of limited numbers of ISIS militants westwards” but “can only defeat ISIS in the areas that our partner forces [the SDF] control” and would not touch the terrorists on Assad’s turf. How much of a foothold ISIS maintains or builds in regime-held areas depends on Assad’s relationship with his years-long business partners, and whether he sees them as a threat to his rule or an acceptable presence.
Assad definitely views the vanquishers of ISIS as a threat. Last month, Assad lashed out at the SDF as “traitors.” The SDF replied, “We assert once again that we will go forward without hesitation in chasing terrorism.”
Tough Love for Lone Jihadists
ISIS showed in 2017 that staging a lone attack isn’t good enough to get hailed with posters and nasheeds as a “lion of the caliphate” — they also want to see success, and they’re not going to claim terrorists who vow fidelity to the Islamic State if those jihadists don’t meet some benchmarks.
ISIS acknowledged in their weekly al-Naba newsletter that the December New York subway bomber claimed to be their “soldier,” without explicitly claiming Akayed Ullah back. There were three injuries that consisted of ringing ears or headaches, and Ullah was burned on his abdomen from the pipe bomb detonation. Ullah bungled an online bomb recipe detailed in an al-Qaeda magazine. He was arrested.
After the Oct. 31 attack, ISIS claimed the terrorist who plowed a rental pickup down a Manhattan bike path, saying in al-Naba that “one of the soldiers of the Islamic State of America” killed “a number of crusaders on a street in New York City” close to the site of the “Battle of 11 September.” However, they notably didn’t mention Sayfullo Saipov by name. He was arrested after the attack, while ISIS has repeatedly directed lone jihadists to be killed or escape instead of submitting to capture. ISIS, which has in explicit detail encouraged followers to use larger and heavier trucks to inflict more damage, also noted that Saipov used a “small truck” to kill eight people.
ISIS wants jihadists to try what they can, but not at the expense of the terror group’s reputation. By sending the signal that they won’t claim or name terrorists who have slipped up in some way, they’re pushing lone jihadists toward choosing attacks at their skill level and following basic terror ground rules.
Expansion to New Turf
As the SDF began its months-long offensive to take Raqqa in November 2016, ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi saw the writing on the wall — issuing an audio message calling jihadists in Afghanistan, the Caucasus, Indonesia, Philippines, Sinai, Bangladesh, West Africa and North Africa the “base of the caliphate.” There’s even a greater focus now on growing that base.
In July, a group called Ansar Ghazwat ul-Hind declared through al-Qaeda channels that a new jihad movement had been founded in Kashmir “committed to carry the flag of jihad to repel the aggression of tyrant Indian invaders.” By November, the Islamic State was claiming its first attack in Kashmir — committed by Ansar Ghazwat ul-Hind. On Christmas, ISIS declared a new province in Kashmir — Islamic State Jammu Kashmir, or ISJK — and set about lobbying local militant groups to come join. ISIS’ branch in India called on al-Qaeda elements in Kashmir to join their ranks.
This week, ISJK’s semi-official media outlet issued a poster calling on Muslims protesting in Kashmir to pick “guns, bullets, bombs & ambushes — no stones, no protests.”
India insisted Wednesday that there’s no ISIS in Kashmir and that Ansar Ghazwat ul-Hind only has 10 fighters.